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Photo: Hassan Bipul

I am tired of Shahbagh activists claiming they are not political. The truth is they are immensely political. What they mean, I believe, is that they are not party-affiliated, that they are not career politicians and want to have nothing to do with the corrupt political institutions and the violent political culture the Bangladeshi parties have bred. In a democracy a widespread movement such as Shahbagh is always political and their clear stance that they will not be hijacked by political parties is also political. The sovereign has taken to the streets.

I also disagree with those, who ask that Shahbagh remains focussed on a small set of objectives: bringing 1971 war criminals to justice and seeing them hanged. The recent murder of the blogger “Thaba Baba” has shown that Shahbagh has become the focal point of a much deeper conflict, rooted in Bangladeshi history. I believe Shahbagh needs to become a place to discuss the past, to make out what really happened in 1971, in order to envision a better future. A future in which activists will be proud to claim that they are political. Shahbagh needs to become a place not for abstract generalities, but for the specifics. It needs to become the place for tough questions.

We need to talk about the past

So far my impression is that Shahbagh is reproducing the story of independence that we have been taught through school: that in 1971 the country was split neatly into Pakistani Army and collaborators on one side and Mukti Bahini and the general population on the other; that one side perpetrated heinous crimes and the other fought heroically to glorious victory.

However, war is never glorious and never neat: Yes, the Pakistani army and their collaborators committed terrible crimes against civilians, turning the freedom fighters into heroes is doing them injustice. In 1971 children and teenagers became soldiers, adults and children survived terrible inhumanities or witnessed these firsthand and others who had been farmers, fishermen and students and teachers learnt to kill. The war left millions traumatized and we have seldom spoken of their pain or how they learnt to go on living.

The truth is many didn’t. I know of decorated freedom fighters who died alcoholics and others, who became soldiers as young as fourteen, whose pain came back to haunt them and whose lives have fallen apart around them. I am grateful that my father, who was a guerrilla fighter, but who was also a minor when he became a soldier, who was a prisoner of war and faced with the possibility of death every day of his imprisonment, who was tortured in ways he refuses to talk about to this day, is today an opponent of war and violence. Things could have ended differently.

At the same time the resistance of the population was not neat, but a diverse effort and a place of intense political contest. Political groups fought in the war, envisioning a future very different from Sheikh Mujib’s amalgamous political vision — among them more stringent socialists or Maulana Bhashani’s NAP, which based itself in a far more tolerant and democratic vision of Islam than Jamaat’s hate-filled ideology today; at the same time the war itself created its own leaders and factions, who formulated their own ideas about the future. This diversity needs to be talked of, because it is the root of the turmoil that followed the war, the dictatorships and assassinations.

They are also the roots of Bangladeshi society today and we need to discuss them before moving on.

We need to talk about the future

Already Shahbagh has become the focal point of discussions about justice, capital punishment and secularism. By demanding justice it is not only confronting the past, but also posing a challenge as to the place and justification of Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh. The call for justice directly challenges a party whose central leaders are probably war criminals; the widespread involvement of women at Shahbagh challenges a party, whose reactionary view of women imagines them outside the public sphere; the call for unity regardless of religious views challenges a party that is so closely linked to violence against religious minorities in Bangladesh and envisions a state, in which a single religion will reign supreme.

This struggle has already begun with the murder of a firmly secular activist (even if his assailants remain unknown) and the call for the ban of Jamaat — a ban that would probably be comfortably within the bounds of political freedoms as formulated by the Charta of Human Rights.

But Shahbagh has also begun challenging fundamental political institutions in the country. Party politicians who regularly babble about this or that being the will of the people suddenly find themselves driven away by those very same people. Institutions that believed they could continue their corrupt ways with impunity, suddenly find themselves challenged. The call for the death penalty is as often a call for vengeance as it is the fear of a corrupt judiciary and executive taking back the sentence now spoken when the political winds change. “I would support life imprisonment”, many say. “If there were a guarantee, that Quader Mollah would actually spend his life in prison.”

The irony of these words is that it protests corruption in the political system, but then demands justice of that very same system. Who can guarantee that a convicted war criminal actually spends his life in prison? If it is not the government or political parties, then perhaps a sovereign people, now mobilized, that ensures an uncorrupted, independent judiciary. The road to that end will be long — and this is why Shahbagh needs to formulate broader political ideas. Bangladesh is full of activists and civil organizations doing important work, but always staying away from the sphere of political institutions. This needs to change.

Why “Tui Rajakar” is so powerful

A first step would be for Shahbagh to emancipate itself from Awami League government that sees fit to align itself with the movement at this time. Instead of naming only the Rajakars that the government has brought before court, Shahbagh needs to start naming all of them — even those that have found their way into political institutions and parties. Their names need to be compiled, witnesses heard and their deeds listed. Shahbagh needs to stop demanding the government and politicians to do a better job and instead formulate its demands directly towards the judiciary.

It needs to hold the Chief Prosecutor accountable to dragging every one of the accused in front of a court; it needs to hold the International Crimes Tribunal accountable to holding the most fair and immaculate trials Bangladesh has ever seen; it needs to hold the jailers accountable to keeping their prisoners in until their sentence is served – and it needs to guarantee the accused that they will be heard in court, but also that justice will be done.

Far more deterring than the death penalty, is guaranteeing criminals regardless of who they are or know that they will be found, they will be put in front of court and they will be named and punished for what they are. This is what Nazis and their collaborators experience these days when Nazi-hunters all over the world drag them before courts. It is irrelevant that they are often too broken, sick and old to stand trial and many of them die of old age before the sentence is spoken. However, they end their lives knowing they have been found, identified and will be remembered for what they are: torturers, murderers and war criminals.

This is why Shahbagh’s slogan of “Tui Rajakar” is so much more powerful and promising than “Fanshi chai“.

Lalon Sander is a Bangladeshi-German journalist.

12 Responses to “Shahbagh, it is time to get political”

  1. Anwar Khan

    Dear All,

    During our liberation war of independence of 1971, I was a college student. During those hard times, Jamaat-e-Islami’s Al-Badrs’ concentration camp was not very far from our residence situated at Kishoreganj Town (Now Kishoreganj District). Duk-bunglow (now the District Council Building), the Pakistan army’s local head quarters was also the same distance from our house. Being an eye witness, I am now giving hereunder a brief account and at the end, I shall make a few comments:

    1.Professor Mahtabuddin was the Jamaat-e-Islami Chief of the then Kishoreganj Sub-Division (now District). I saw him many times in my own eyes that he had been encouraging the Al-Badrs to kill the innocent people. Everyday, he used to come to the Al-Badrs concentration camp situated at the Bunglow of the then Kishoreganj Railway Station Master ( after forcibly driven away the Station Master and his family from his allotted quarter) to boost them up to kill more and more people in the name of religion-Islam. The entire Al-Badr and Al-shams, the killing outfit Jamaat-e-Islami throughout the Kishoreganj District, was under his operational command.

    2. One afternoon, some time in August, 1971 an innocent boy was caught by the Al-Badr gangsters. He was inhumanely tortured on the main road at broad day light near the Kishoreganj Railway station; he was bayonetted, blood was coming out from his lower part of the belly, he was groaning, he was tied with strong ropes behind a Rickshaw putting his two legs upward. All these atrocities they committed pronouncing “Naraye Takbir, Allah Huakbar.” He was forced to say “ Pakistan Zindabad” but he did never say so. Rather, he repeatedly said “Joy Bangla.” Then a microphone was fitted with that Rickshaw and then these creatures of hell made campaigns throughout the town showing that poor dying boy that the same dire consequences would happen with those who would be Mukti Bahini (liberation fighters) or their supporters. And thus announcements were made all over Kishoreganj Town showing this dying poor boy. It created a tremendous panic in the Town. Prof. Mahatab came, saw him and with a great smile applauded his accomplices (Al-Badrs), asked them to make all-out efforts to catch similar such people and encouraged them to eliminate the so-called enemies of their beloved Pakistan in such a brutal or the other ways. The boy then died a martyred death for the cause of this motherland. His body was refused for burial and allowed the decomposed body to eat by the vultures, jackals and dogs.

    3. I shall now narrate another ghastly incident. One afternoon in 1971 (possibly in September), I was passing through the main road from Kishoreganj Railway Station to Newtown area, when I reached in front of the house of Advocate Emdad Mia (situated just beside the main road), I found that some members of Al-Badr were pronouncing “Naraye Takbir, Allah Hu-akbar” and simultaneously after inhumanely beating forcibly made a boy to lie down on the grass beside the main road and slaughtered that boy with a big knife like as we usually sacrifice the cows on the Eid-ul-Azha day. The two pieces of the dead body were then thrown into the marshy land beside the road and allowed for eating by the vultures, jackals and dogs

    4.The river Narasunda is nearby to our house at Kishoreganj. During the months of August-up to early December, 1971, I saw many young people were inhumanely tortured and being taken blind-folded near to the bank of that river, brutally shot them to death pronouncing “Naraye Takbir, Allah Huakbar” and then kicked them off to the Narasunda River. No dead body was permitted for burial by them.

    5.They were directly involved in rape, arson and looting and burning of houses of innumerable people. I saw how they helped supplying women-folk to the local army head-quarters at kishoreganj.

    6.On the morning of 17.12. 1971 (Kishoreganj Town was liberated on that morning), I entered into that Concentration Camp of Al-Badrs along with some of my friends and found its floor with ankle deep thick human blood. One can easily imagine how and what was the extent of torture done on those un-armed and innocent human beings in this concentration camp by the Jamaat’s killing squad-Al-Badrs. Those helpless people could never go back to their parents.

    Comments :

    1.I have cited here only a few incidents only.

    2.Jamaat-e-Islami, Al-Badr and Al-Shams played the major role in bringing about the human tragedy of the highest magnitude in 1971.

    3.Leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, it’s the then student wing-Islami Chhatra Sangha (now Islami Chhatra Shibir) and their killing outfits- Al-Badr and Al-shams are all congenital liars-pathological liars.

    4. One has to become a human being before he wants to be a Musssalman/Muslim but they are just beasts, worst creatures of the hell. Same thing has been repeating by the same ugly force now.

    5. They are all enemies against humanity. They and their accomplices can do anything ugly for their own interests.

    6. They are just ugly religion traders because whenever they murdered our innocent people, they used religion- :Allah Hu Akbar”; “Naraye Takbir” and so on.

    7.No one should have any sympathy for them. But I reiterate that they are just religion traders and congenital liars; they are mass murderers, looters, miscreants and what not.

    8. They all deserve capital punishment because of the magnitude of crimes and sins they committed during our people’s war of independence for Bangladesh in 1971.

    9. Jamaat-e-Islami, as a political party, as an organization and above all, its leaders are all war crimes criminal.

    10. No compromise; no negotiation is possible with those who brought untold sufferings to our people, those who looted our valuables, those who burnt our houses, those who raped our millions of sisters and mothers, those who killed millions of our people.

    11. I want capital punishment of them all. Jamaat-e-Islami, as a political party be brought to book and banned.

    12. I am now close to 60. I never did politics and shall not do politics in future also. In my 5 times prayer, I pray to Allah so that He gives capital punishment to these worst creatures of the hell.

  2. Anatul Fateh

    It is the picture alone of Jahanara Imam that watches over the square. This gives me some reason to hope that the movement will avoid alignment with any of the current political parties.

  3. simpleman

    Why can’t Shahbag just focus on one thing at a time? Why is it so necessary right now that we have to include any and every issues of Bangladesh under the sun?

  4. Akash

    Nicely crafted piece, but there is a craftiness behind the piece. There are many who are now writing in a blitz and throwing out suggestions what the Shahbag activists should do or not do. All they are doing, deliberately or not, is to muddy up the destination. What I have heard from the activist leaders at Shahbag, they are very clear, articulate and resolute about their destination (they are very aware of the techniques of muddying up): They want a Bangladesh free from the monsters and hyenas of 1971, those very vile figures who are fundamentally against the basic principles of the nation and have in the last 35 years or so penetrated every branch of the country and even ascended the highest level, and if for that reason capital punishment is to be demanded, that is so. Yes, this is political, and your demand to keep AL out is also dubious. AL may have problems, it may have faltered, it may also have negotiated with the hyenas before, but which other party or prospective government will assure you that they will take us to that destination?

  5. Mishael Ahmad

    phaashi chai has been posed as a fanatic chant, whereas, there are pertinent reasons for the demand. primarily, activists demand the highest punishment available to be given to war criminals. in the case of Bangladesh, it is capital punishment. and that is asking for justice, as per law of the land. second reason is, people are worried if government changes to BNP-Jamaat alliance, criminals well could be pardoned and set free. therefore, the demand for phaashi.

    regarding inclusion of other issues, the movement should rather stick to the 6-point. this itself is a huge work and would take time, effort, will, patience, intelligence and courage.
    only and only if phaashi is achieved, Shahbagh would have the trust of people that this can go farther.

  6. Sleepless in Shahbag

    The ‘political’ association is mostly semantics. But the truth is, Shahbag is getting not only political, but almost fanatic. Its now difficult to explain why we don’t attend everyday, contribute and chant. The Shahbag voice seems to say ‘you’re either with us or against us’.

    I go to Shahbag because I believe this ‘projonmo’ will allow me to express myself (even if they don’t agree). The moment this essence is lost in a wave of (understandable, yet unwanted) aggression – Shahbag will have lost its heart. It will have been hijacked from the very people who started or supported it.

    • Dark Knight

      The reality of the Shahbag demonstration should have been thought out more carefully. Getting hyper active youths involved in a system without clear agenda and guidance is a recipe for disaster!

      We are now seeing increased demonstration, violence and crimes being committed through out Bangladesh, by not just members of the public but the police and RAB force, the similar atrocity being perpetrated by them which the Shahbag gathering was meant to highlight and stop.

      Now who is to be blamed for all this? Who is calling for the end to violence and continued strike?

      Like one commentator mentioned why is the Shahbag rally talking about every issue in Bangladesh? It is obvious that Bangladesh suffers from corruption, murder, rape, bribes, no accountability… Without tackling the route cause of the problem you cannot solve the disease. It’s like having an indigestion resulting in a headache, if you take medication for just the headache will it solve the stomach problem!

      Yes, the issues are many and endless, unless we tackle them Bangladesh will not prosper and forward to the 21st Century and real world.

      By just hanging Quader Mollah and a few others, will that solve Bangladesh lack of infrastructure (roads, bridges, drains), high unemployment, gas, electricity, health, education, training, investment..!?

      Please take your time to think, why are the people of Bangladesh suffering and struggling to make ends meet, in every day life!?

  7. Raihan Jamil

    Unfortunately this article stinks of demands and rhetorics put forward by the war criminals’ party Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh. We need trials of all rajakars, this should not be an AL movement, all rajakars’ names need to be compiled, “what is more important than . . .” kind of stuff.

    Mr. Sander needs to understand that Shahbag started with some specific goals and agendas, the key one being the capital punishment of those who are already facing trials in court.

    Please do not try to divert the root causes and derail the movement with these Jamati dialogues.

    • Dark Knight

      Why is everyone concentrating on blaming one political party for deaths of thousands during the 1971 war of independence!?

      There are many leaders in the current serving and non serving political parties that have blood on their hands. This is how they reached the top of the political ladder.

      The writer is correct in saying that all the criminals should be accountable for the atrocity and Shahbag square gathering should be united in voicing that, not be narrow minded in their thinking but broaden the horizon.

      In a country where majority 95%+ are Muslim, you cannot be one sided and alienate the elected representatives of the people.

      This is undemocratic and only serves the current Awami League by removing the competition, so they can promote their own people in high office. In order to cream the top! When it comes to tender.

    • Saad Arsalan

      @Raihan — This shortsighted idea that whoever has a difference of opinion regarding the direction of Shahbag should take is a “Jamati” or “Rajakar” is a dangerous disease that will split our country. We fought the war of liberation so that people of ALL religions, races and ideologies could live together. We reject the fascism of Jamaat, but not because it can be replaced by another kind of fascism that stifles dissent. Unless we learn to respect different viewpoints, Shahbag will not lead to a fair and democratic society. There is still time!

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